The Perfect Italian Wife
I’m sitting in the hospital lobby, waiting for them to come out and call me. It’s packed: everywhere you look, pregnant women sit by themselves, with their partner, with other children clinging to their knees and crying for attention. Some of their faces are happy, some tired and worn out by one too many sleepless nights, some are reading baby parenting books like they hold more truth than the Bible. The high pitched squeals do nothing to soothe my nerves: my eyes keep darting to the ultrasound room door. I just wish I could tell them all to shut up and be quiet, but somehow I don’t think that would go down too well with the hormone-crazed women sharing the room with me. So I just slouch a little in my plastic chair and go back to staring at the door.
The church is beautifully decorated, white satin ribbons flowing in the summer breeze from the open door, people coming in and filling the places on the benches and chatting vivaciously. I look at the groom next to the altar, handsome in his dark blue tux with a white tie, and such a happy look in his brown eyes he seems to light up the entire church. He catches my glance and nods: we’re ready. I take my cue and walk briskly to the back room where the bride is waiting.
‘Carolina, everybody’s here. Are you ready?’
From where she sits at the mirror, her excited blue eyes meet mine and she smiles. She looks so much like me, we could be twins, but my eyes are green and she’s my baby sister, getting married today.
‘Sure Toni, just help me with this veil, will you? You’ve got the flowers, right?’ I laugh at her anxious tone and nod. ‘Great. You’re the most amazing maid of honour ever, I swear. You’ll be an amazing bride, too.’
I make a face.
‘I’m not sure I’ll live to see that day… Massimo is so slow! I swear if I have to drop one more hint, I might as well spell it out for him.’
She’s laughing hard, beautiful in her white dress, her face now covered by the exquisite lace veil, hands modestly clutching the bouquet.
‘Trust me, Toni, he’ll pop the question soon. Remember: they want the perfect Italian wife, devoted to the house and the children and, most of all, the husband’s needs. Keep being who you are, the lovely housewife who makes his house a home, and he’d be a fool to let you go! Now, hurry, dad’s waiting for us.’
A hand gently shakes my shoulder.
‘Antonia, darling, have you been waiting long?’
Massimo’s sister looks worried. She seems so out of place in her Chanel tailleur, somehow managing to convey pity and disapproval, taking in my old jeans and paint-streaked hair.
‘No, Giulia, just a few minutes. But they said it might be a while, so if you want to go for a smoke, don’t worry, there’s time. I’ll call you if you’re not here when we have to go in.’
‘Thanks, Toni, you’re a star.’ She smiles, grateful for the opportunity to leave this alien environment, so filled with snotty noses, messy hair and dirty clothes. I don’t even turn around to watch her go, choosing to get lost in my own head again, while I still can.
There’s a letter on the table, official looking, with an embossed logo and header, on display against a bottle of Montepulciano amongst the carefully set dinnerware. I can hear the front door opening and a voice shouting ‘Honey, I’m home!’
‘Come through, I’m just putting the lasagne in the oven. Hurry and take a shower, dinner’s ready in twenty!’
Then hands are circling my waist and I turn to give him a kiss. I swat his arms away. ‘Go get ready: wouldn’t want the food to spoil…’
Sitting at the table, I pour him a glass of wine as he reads the letter. I’m looking at him expectantly, waiting for his reaction.
‘I don’t understand, Antonia. What does this mean?’ His brow is furrowed and he doesn’t look too pleased. I’m confused.
‘They offered me a job in one of the best practices in town. They said they’re looking for someone with my background to work with bilingual children and their families. And maybe, in a few years, I could be a partner!’ I’m almost squealing, but I’m too happy to care. ‘It’s a great job, a fantastic start for my career!’
‘But… what about the children?’
My face falls, my stomach ties in a knot and I reach for my wine.
‘Max, we talked about this. You know what the doctors said…’
‘I don’t care what they said! We can find a way!’ Now he looks enraged. ‘And you want a family, too. But how are you supposed to do that if you take a job that’s going to keep you busy all the time? Don’t forget, the doctors also said that stress is a huge factor, and this job has such a big responsibility you’ll be stressed all the time! Did you think about that?’
‘Max, please…’ I feel the tears welling up but I refuse to cry. ‘They said another miscarriage might kill me. We’ve already lost three, I don’t think I can… I can’t do it again, Max.’
‘Then we can adopt. It’s true that I said I didn’t want to before, but now… if it’s our only option, we’ll adopt.’ He takes my hand, lacing our fingers together, and he kisses my palm.
‘Really? You mean it, you wouldn’t mind…?’
‘Really.’ He smiles at me, and I’m lost into those eyes. They’re my downfall: when he stares at me like this, he can make me do whatever he wants, and I don’t mind. ‘But, we won’t get considered for adoption if you take this new job. The hours are too long, the responsibilities too big; they need to know you’ll be staying home with the children, and you can’t take maternity leave if you’ve just started in your position. I want a child, and I want it now. We’re ready.’
‘You’re right, of course. I’ll call them…’ I kiss him gently on the lips. ‘I’ll turn them down.’
* * *
Mother is furious, I can hear her screaming through the phone even without the loudspeaker.
‘You’re letting him manipulate you again, Antonia! How can you throw your life away like this? You’ve got a masters in education for god’s sake!’
‘Mamma, please, understand. I’m not throwing my life anywhere, I just choose a family over a career. Why can’t you just accept that I want this…’
‘Because this is not you, Toni! This is Max talking. He’s a no good, bigoted caveman. And you’re letting him walk all over you! One day you’ll realise this, and it will be too late: you’ll still be working as a behavioural therapist at the nursery, a glorified babysitter, with a pitiful salary, and you’ll regret it.’
‘Mamma, please, let me explain…’
‘I’ve heard enough in these past three years, Toni. You want to be just another housewife? Fine. I thought we taught you better than this, but evidently not. Your father and I are very disappointed in you.’
She hangs up the phone and I feel like crying, but then I look at the pictures on the wall, of me and Max in the past three years. So my parents don’t understand, but it’s okay, because I have Massimo and he loves me and he wants a family with me. And this is all that matters.
The door opens and a nurse in a white uniform shouts my name. I get up, take my bag and coat and walk towards her. She leads me to a smaller room with a curtain separating the few chairs and a computer from the bed. I can hear people talking behind the screen as I drop my things to text Giulia and, for a moment, I feel utterly lost.
‘If you want to come through here, please.’ says the nurse, and I avoid looking at her eyes, because I can already feel the pity and I know if I actually see it written all over her face I might either cry or scream, and I refuse to do either. I choose to follow her in silence, to the bed where Massimo is standing talking to a doctor, his hand on the shoulder of a beautiful woman. Her features are striking, olive skin standing out against the hospital’s white sheets, the gown raised so her flat stomach is bared, a paper towel covering her pelvis leaving her legs naked: a mile long of tanned skin, taut and waxed to perfection, stretching out leisurely against the gurney. I can’t hear a word they’re saying.
I’m too busy remembering the last instance I saw those exposed legs.
It’s late afternoon and I’m running home early. I asked for a half day at work to cook dinner: tonight Giorgia, Max’s childhood friend, is coming to stay with us for a few days. I went food shopping for her favourites and I’m going to surprise both her and Max tonight with a prefect dinner.
When I open the door, the first thing I see are Max’s work boots and bag next to them. Did he have a day off today and I forgot? Before I can think about it, I hear muffled sounds coming from upstairs, so I drop my bags and walk up. I’m being exceedingly quiet, and I’m doing it without even realising, as if I already know what I’m going to find. No amount of thought or imagination could have prepared me for what’s waiting for me in my bedroom. I wish I could move, whether to leave or to walk in, or even just to say something, but I’m rooted to the spot, standing against the doorframe.
Max is leaning against the bed, and he’s naked. My eyes roam over his muscled back, the light skin of his buttocks, the tan line that ends mid-tights reminder of our last holiday; his hands are roaming freely over a pair of bronzed legs spread wide, his head in between them moving back and forth, licking and teasing. And there, lying with her head thrown backwards and moaning loudly, is Giorgia. She’s wearing only a laced black bra, her hands buried deep into Max’s hair as he steadily guides her to orgasm with his tongue. She’s screaming now, pulling at the brown curls as if she wants to rip them off, but he doesn’t seem to mind. His hands rise from her legs and unhook the small piece of lace still covering her, his fingers finding her hard nipples and playing with them as she shakes her arms to remove the piece of clothing. The moment she reaches her peak her body begins to shudder with waves of pleasure and Max pushes her further on the bed, covering her and in one fluid movement he enters her. Giorgia’s legs wrap around his lower back as he pounds into her, her hands leaving scratch marks on his shoulders, her voice urging him to go faster, harder, to give it to her rough. It doesn’t take long for Max to arch his back and shout her name, before Giorgia captures his mouth into an open, messy, tongue-filled kiss, moving with him as he explodes inside her.
As he falls, exhausted, on top of her body, I’m released from my weird paralysis at last
and let out a whimpering sound. They both turn towards the door and find me there: standing, staring, tears running down my cheeks. I turn and run away, ignoring Max’s shouts that ‘it’s not what it seems’ and ‘please allow me to explain’.
Shaking my head to clear it from the images of that night, I force myself to focus on the present. That was the last I’d seen of Max, ignoring his calls and texts for two months until Giulia’s call this morning passing on his message to please come to the hospital to meet him. In the gynaecology department. With Giorgia.
‘Sorry, Max, can you repeat? I spaced out for a second…’
He throws me an amused look and smiles, and gives his head a shake.
‘Same old Toni, always with your head in the clouds…’
The laughter in his tone irritates me and I turn to leave, almost bumping into Giulia who just made it into the room.
‘What did I miss?’
‘Nothing, yet, sis. Could I please talk to Toni alone?’
He grabs my arm and leads me on the other side of the office.
‘Please, just listen to me for a second, ok?’
Against my better judgment, I nod. He lets out a relieved sigh.
‘Let me start by saying how sorry I am for what I’ve done. It was the biggest mistake of my life. I really need you to forgive me, because I can’t live without you.’
‘Sure, and that’s why you called me here. With her. Who is pregnant, it would seem.’
He shakes his head in frustration.
‘Please, let me finish. What I’ve done is idiotic, I know, but… well, it may be a blessing in disguise! Yes, it’s true. Giorgia is pregnant with my baby. But – and here comes the blessing – she doesn’t want to keep it!’
I can hear the elation in his voice, and now I’m utterly confused.
‘I’m sorry, I fail to see the positive side of this…’
‘Don’t you understand? She’s agreed to continue the pregnancy, and then give us the baby. It would be ours. It’s perfect, the solution to all our problems!’
‘Let me get this straight…’ (by now I’m so angry I can barely keep my voice from breaking) ‘…you’re telling me you want me to forgive you, get back together, and raise the baby you conceived with someone else while cheating on me?’
He must’ve sensed the cold fury beneath my tone, because he grabs my hand and kneels on the floor.
‘I want to be with you, for the rest of my life, and you can’t have children. You know I didn’t want to adopt because I wanted a baby who was mine. But I would’ve done it for you! So this way, we both get what we want: I get a baby with my DNA, and you get a husband and a family!’
‘I can’t believe you!’ I’m shouting now, and I don’t care who hears anymore. ‘You thought this was a good idea? You seriously thought I would say yes? Who do you think you are, but most of all, who do you think I am, to even propose such a thing?’
‘Why can’t you see my side of things for once? This might be my only chance to have a baby that’s mine! How can you be so selfish to deny me this?’
He’s angry, and incredulous, as if he really thought he was handing me the keys to heaven. And all of a sudden, I see clearly: my family’s warnings, Giulia’s pity every time she looked at me, the friends I lost because they hated him. It hits me, and I start laughing, grabbing my clothes and moving to the door.
‘You pathetic piece of shit! I’m selfish? I gave up everything to be with you: my career, my friends, my family’s respect! And for what? For a caveman who still believes in values from the seventeenth century. You want this baby so much, you can raise him by yourself, ‘cause I’m not wasting another second on you.’ I look at his shocked face and land my last blow. ‘Also, I took the job, so I wouldn’t have the time to be the perfect Italian wife anyway.’
I slam the door in his face and leave.
As I’m running out of the hospital, someone grabs my arm and I turn, ready to punch Max in the face, when I see Giulia’s smile.
‘You know, I underestimated you. Want a cigarette?’
Laughing, I take one.
‘Want to go get drunk, dance on a table and behave like we want to, for once, instead of how good little Italian girls should?’